District Council 37, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, New York City
A Chicago native, Lillian Roberts has been an advocate for the rights of union members for more than 55 years.
She is the executive director of District Council 37, New York City’s largest public employee union within the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. She is also a vice president of the New York State AFL-CIO and the New York City Central Labor Council, and secretary of the Municipal Labor Committee.
Roberts became a union activist while working as a nurse’s aide in a Chicago hospital. “I didn’t believe in injustices of any kind. I had seen how hardworking men and women were sometimes mistreated by their employers and I wanted to be helpful to them whenever I could,” she explains.
In 1965, Roberts came to New York and built up DC 37’s hospital division, making it the city’s largest, most powerful public employee union.
She has always been known for her organizational skills, her ability to connect with the rank and file, and her commitment to fighting for their rights.
In the late 1960s, New York’s governor refused to take action allowing hospital workers to join the union. Roberts called a strike, which was illegal, and was slapped with a 30-day sentence in jail and a $2,500 fine. Following public outcry, Roberts was released after two weeks.
“By offering educational opportunities to hardworking men and women you give them a boost up the career ladder and a shot at the American Dream. Our union doesn’t just fight for them as workers, we fight for the whole person,” she says.
At 81, Roberts still heads the union she helped to transform into a powerhouse.